Along with many of my medical colleagues, I have been appalled to read recent news accounts of Turkish doctors being arrested, questioned, and threatened with having their medical licenses revoked merely for treating protesters wounded in clashes with security forces in Istanbul.
We have also been encouraged, however, to see the Turkish Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Central Council respond so forcefully to the Ministry of Health’s attempts to discourage physicians from treating protesters engaged in “illegal” activities. In comments posted on its web site, the TMA declares that “the health of our patients will be our first consideration” and that “we shall not permit considerations of creed, nation, ethnicity, party politics or social standing to intervene between our duty and our patients.”
Such strenuous pushback in defense of medical neutrality will likely be required not just in Turkey but in many other countries before this principle becomes firmly rooted in places where governments see the provision or denial of medical care as just another tool to be used in their efforts to exert control over their citizens.
Even here in the United States, where Congress has not yet passed the bipartisan Medical Neutrality Protection Act, some of the detainees now on hunger strike in Guantanamo might well contend that this country has room for improvement when it comes to observing medical neutrality. That is one reason why Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and other organizations are calling for independent doctors to be allowed access to evaluate and treat the hunger strikers, who have lost confidence in their military doctors.
Elsewhere in the world, medical professionals continue to pay a high price for treating wounded people in defiance of governmental opposition. Several still languish in prison in Bahrain, more than two years after they treated people injured in the Arab Spring protests, while many more have been ousted from their jobs.
Recent events in Turkey remind me of the human rights abuses in Bahrain that I investigated for PHR in April 2012—including the security forces’ apparent use of tear gas as a weapon, as documented in the PHR report that we published subsequent to the investigation. The situations in Bahrain and Turkey, though similar in some ways, are very different in others, of course. In Istanbul, the doctors who were taken into custody have been released.
The doctors’ courage should inspire the rest of us to redouble our efforts to ensure that the principle of medical neutrality is embraced wherever doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are working—in other words, in every country across the globe. As Hippocrates instructed us some 2,500 years ago and the Turkish Medical Association reminded us this month, the patient’s well-being must always be our primary consideration.